One of the strongest forces known is the human will to survive. History is full of stories of people striving to survive in times of war, poverty, at the hands of fellow human beings and many other circumstances they may find themselves in. Often these struggles are fought against the sometimes overwhelming forces of nature. The following are examples of these stories, both fiction and nonfiction, where human beings face extreme conditions -- starvation, dehydration, isolation, exposure, wildlife, lack of medical aid and more -- and yet still manage to overcome.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
In the early 1800s whaling was a way of life for the island of Nantucket off the Massachusetts coast. The whaleship Essex set off in 1820 for a routine two and half year journey down the coast and around Cape Horn to hunt in the waters off the west coast of South America. Finding that the usual hunting waters were depleted, they ventured further off into the ocean. One day while hunting, a large sperm whale decided to fight back and rammed the ship multiple times until there was no way to stop it from sinking. The crew escaped in their three small whaleboats and then tried to survive long enough, with limited resources, to finally reach shore somewhere in the vast ocean. It was these events that inspired part of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff
During World War II Greenland was used by the United States as a base and a stopover on the way to Europe. One day in early November 1942 a cargo plane crashed into the Greenland Ice Cap. One of the B-17's involved in the search and rescue crashed a few days later and then another small plane involved in their rescue vanished. This book mainly covers two stories. The first is of the crew of the B-17 who had to survive the winter in the broken tail of their plane where it crashed on a glacier. Also, the author gives an account of an expedition in 2012 of which he was a part that had the goal of searching for the wreckage of the small plane that disappeared and solving the mystery of what happened to it.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
This classic, often regarded as the first English novel, is one of the most well-known tales of survival. Robinson Crusoe is a British sailor who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and ends up stranded on a desert island. Through nearly three decades of struggle he learns how to stay alive, finding ways to provide shelter, clothing, food and fight off cannibals.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
In the year 1996, the magazine Outside hired journalist Jon Krakauer to write about climbing Mount Everest. Krakauer had been climbing for many years but this would be his first attempt in the Himalayas. Above 29,000 feet, in what is often called "The Death Zone" -- where the air is thin and decisions are made with limited oxygen and in harsh conditions, help is too far away to reach you, and a single wrong step or choice can mean the difference between triumph and disaster -- anything can happen. While Krakauer and many of this companions would reach the summit, not all made it back down. In this harrowing firsthand account, Krakauer shares the events of that spring, one of Everest’s deadliest, on the roof of the world.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Astronaut Mark Watney is part of the Ares 3 mission, the third manned mission to Mars. During an emergency evacuation due to an unusually strong sand storm, Mark is struck by the communications dish and carried several feet away. Unable to find him and believing him dead when his bio-monitor goes offline after indicating depressurization -- and the only ship that can carry them off the surface back to orbit is in danger of tipping over -- his crewmates leave Mars and Mark’s body behind. However, Mark is still alive and is now the only human being on the planet. Living in a structure meant to be used only for their 31 day mission, with only a year’s worth of food and no communication with Earth or his crewmates, and without any hope of rescue until four years away when the next manned mission arrives on Mars, Mark must use all his skills, and a much needed sense of humor, to survive.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
In 1914 explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out with his crew on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, an attempt to make the first land crossing of Antarctica. However, their ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea before they made landfall. The ship was stuck in the drifting ice all winter until it was finally crushed and sank, though the crew was able to escape onto the ice with supplies, their dogs, sledges, and the lifeboats. After surviving months on the ice floes, the men eventually were forced to take to the harsh seas in open boats to journey to uninhabited Elephant Island and then even further to find a means of rescue. Miraculously, all 28 men survived the two year long ordeal.
The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis
Part of Shackleton’s original plan for crossing Antarctica included another group coming from the other side and laying down a series of supply caches partway across the continent that Shackleton’s group could then use to complete the final quarter of their journey. This group, called the Ross Sea Party, also was beset by many hardships, lost three men, and ended up being stranded even longer than the other group before they were rescued in early 1917. Their story can be found in this account.
Looking for more non-fiction titles with the similar theme of surviving unlikely adventures? Check out this True Survival reading list.